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Forming an Image of the Bard
By Michael J. Cummings...©
.......Scanty information exists about Shakespeare’s physical characteristics, such as his height and weight, the timbre of his voice, his gait, and the tone of his complexion. However, portraits of him and accounts of his activities allow for
educated conjecture about these characteristics. (A table with links to 24 images of Shakespeare appears below.)
.......It must be pointed out that none of the portraits qualifies as a verified likeness of him, for no evidence exists
that Shakespeare actually sat for a portrait. Artists could have executed their portraits from memory or from descriptions of Shakespeare provided by persons who knew him. Even the so-called authentic likeness of Shakespeare–the 1623 Martin Droeshout engraving of him (right) that appeared in the First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays–is suspect. The artist was
only 15 when Shakespeare died in 1616. Apparently, Droeshout completed the portrait shortly before the First Folio publication. (The work is on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London.)
.......Complicating matters is that some renderings of
Shakespeare–whether oil paintings, line engravings, plaster casts, and so on–were altered over time. Nevertheless, because almost all the surviving images of Shakespeare depict him as having certain similar features–such as a receding hairline, a mustache, and either shoulder-length hair or hair reaching to the earlobes–it is possible at least to speculate about his appearance. Moreover, the
activities that occupied him, such as writing and acting, suggest that he had certain physical capabilities. Following is a speculative look at Shakespeare's physical qualities:
Face and Head
Portraits of Shakespeare depict him with dark brown, reddish, or black hair billowing down to the lobes of the ears or shoulders and with a carefully trimmed mustache and a receding hairline. Most of them present him
with a closely cropped beard rising from the chin to the level of the lower lip or to ear level. However, the 1623 First Folio portrait depicts him without a beard. The facial features of that portrait differ markedly from those in the other portraits, such as the John Sanders Portrait and the John Soest Stratford Portrait. None of the portraits gives any indication that Shakespeare had deformities, scars, or other types of disfigurements. However, the memorial bust of him in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon indicates that he may have had a suntanned
Portraits of Shakespeare (head and shoulders) suggest that he was of average weight. There are no signs of a double chin or fleshy cheeks. However, a bust of him in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-Upon-Avon depicts a stout
Shakespeare. The padded jacket he is wearing could account for the portliness. It is also possible that he gained weight in his later years or that the artist failed to depict him as he was.
Because Shakespeare acted in his own plays and those of other prominent authors, such as Ben Jonson, he probably possessed a reasonably good voice. At the Globe Theatre, actors had to project their voices to 2,000 to
3,000 people, up to 1,000 of whom stood in a yard in front of the stage talking when they became bored and booing or hissing when the performances displeased them.
Body Movement and Physical Condition
Because acting required Shakespeare to walk, gesture, grimace, and use other body language, he apparently had no serious handicaps that limited his movement or detracted from his performance.
When traveling back and forth between Stratford and London, he may have ridden a horse. His plays indicate that he had a sportsman's knowledge of the outdoors. The status of his general health in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood was probably good or at least adequate, considering that he was apparently hale enough to meet the demands of being a spouse, father, writer, actor, and businessman.
Whether he was susceptible to frequent infections is unknown. However, he managed to elude the ravages of the London plague between 1592 and 1594, a period during which he wrote his sonnets. Working in the theatre must have placed heavy demands on him, for he presented his plays not only at the Globe Theatre but also at inns, courtyards, royal palaces, and private
residences. He was also a co-owner of the Globe. There can be little doubt that his brain functioned well in terms of intellectual undertakings. After all, several of his plays–including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and The Tempest–rank at the top of the list of greatest dramas in English
Hands and Arms
Shakespeare wrote his plays with a quill dipped in ink. Therefore, he probably had at least one good hand and arm–and considering what has been already said about his required movements as an actor–probably two good
hands and arms. He had five digits on both hands, according to the sculpture in the church.
By lamplight or the
natural light of often-misty London days, Shakespeare had to write, read, and memorize to meet his responsibilities as a writer, an actor, and a businessman. It is likely, therefore, that his eyesight was adequate into middle age. However, it is possible that his eyesight began to fail him in his forties. In most adults, visual acuity declines in the middle years, frequently as a result of
presbyopia, a condition marked by reduced ability of the lens of the eye to bring close objects into focus. Presbyopia is a form a farsightedness, characterized by the ability to see distant objects better than near ones. In Shakespeare’s day, eyeglasses were available to correct both farsightedness and nearsightedness (the ability to see near objects better than distant ones). It was the
invention of the printing press, and the consequent publication of books in the mid-15th Century, that created a market for eyeglasses. Whether Shakespeare developed presbyopia or any other eye condition is unknown. If he did develop an eye condition, it is possible that the optical technology of his day was advanced enough to remedy it. On the other hand, if the technology was inadequate,
Shakespeare would have had difficulty reading and writing. Scholars have always been puzzled by why Shakespeare decided to retire in his late forties. Could it be that he suffered from an untreatable eye condition? That possibility exists.
...Table of Portraits and Sculptures